2004 Giants Preview: The Starting Rotation

The 2004 Giants Starting Rotation is examined. The rotation looks better than last year's and can potentially be a rock against other top teams. But it all depends on Schmidt being able to go for most of the season, like last year.

2003 was quite unlike 2002 in that instead of steadiness in the rotation, there was a continual turnover in the starting rotation from the first strike one of the season to the bitter end as Snow was tagged out at the plate. In addition, from our starting rotation, we lost Russ Ortiz and Livan Hernandez before the season started, then lost Kurt Ainsworth and Damian Moss during the season via a trade and Jesse Foppert to a season ending injury. And the turnover continued into the offseason, losing Sir Sidney via free agency. And this doesn't include all the prospects sent packing as well.

And the players we got in replacement for the starting rotation for 2004 include Brett Tomko via free agency plus Dustin Hermanson, whom the Giants re-signed, names that don't stir the hearts and souls of Giants fans used to names like Marichial, Perry, Blue, Krukow, Dravecky, or more recently Ortiz and Schmidt. Fans are outraged over the "Wal-Mart"-ing of the Giants - including this one - saddened by the fact that Sabean during the off-season was extremely happy over the Giants being able to sign all the players that they did, when they could have had all the key players re-signed AND add a high impact player for RF, had they decided to do that instead. But at least they tried to sign Greg Maddux to strengthen the rotation before the Cubbies opened their purse strings even wider.

But what are the facts of the situation? Are the Giants truly much worse off in their new configuration than their old? Are Giants fans judging players by their covers, i.e. superficially? In this article, I will examine the changes in the Giants starting rotation in an effort to cut through the passion of fans to see what's really happening, at least from my viewpoint.

Starting Rotation Review

2003: Schmidt, Rueter/Ponson, Ainsworth/Williams, Moss/Brower/Hermanson, Jensen/Foppert/Correia/Powell/Zerbe
2004: Schmidt, Rueter, Williams, Hermanson, Tomko Jason Schmidt - So far, so not great. He is still being slowly brought along. However, the most important thing to me is that the pain does not appear to be severe, so it appears that it is just a matter of time before he mows batters down again. I think this is similar to last year where he just needed extra time to get ready for the season.

And how will Schmidt do in 2004, assuming he is healthy? Well, in 2002, which he recently acknowledged is when he still didn't know what he was doing on the mound, he was 13-8 with a 3.45 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, and .218 BAA. In 2003, which he said he didn't know until the second half of the season to trust his high, hard stuff and go to his strength, his blazing fastball, plus he couldn't throw off-speed pitches with his torn tendon, he was 17-5 with 2.34 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, and .200 BAA. Plus his early season was disrupted by the death of his mother, who he was very close to.

So he had very good stats in 2002 not knowing what to do, and then had great stats in 2003 distracted by his mother's death and pitching half the year with a torn tendon and unable to throw an off-speed pitch, and now in 2004, he appears to be healthy, though still recovering, AND now knows how to pitch. As a result, I think it should be a monster Cy Young caliber year in 2004 for Schmidt, 20-25 wins, ERA in the low to mid 2's again, WHIP even under his league leading (among starters) 0.95 of last season and thus outdo the Schmidt of 2003.

However, the caveat with him is the injury factor: has there been a year he hasn't missed some starts due to one physical problem or another? But so far so OK, if cautiously OK. He just pitched 60 pitches in a minor league game - pain free - and is slated to pitch 80 this coming Saturday before coming back to the big club.

Kirk Rueter - Rueter came back from his injury and first time on the disabled list with the Giants and was fine the last few starts of the season. Plus he pitched well in the playoffs, like he usually does. He should not be a worry for 2004 because he hasn't had problems before but an eye should be kept on him, just in case.

But even in a down year, he went 10-5 even though he had a 4.53 ERA that was obviously negatively affected by his injury much of the year. And he still kept his team close in 17 games out of 27 games, giving up 3 or less runs in 5 or more innings in those outings. The Giants were 15-2 in those games, which is not surprisingly as he pitched well.

But even in the ten games where he didn't do so well, the Giants went 4-6 in them, which is not too bad given that Rueter pitched poorly, implying that either Rueter and the Giants got lucky or that even when he pitched poorly, he still kept the team close enough for the bullpen to hold off the other team and the offense to score enough to win. Perhaps it's Rueter: in 2002, the Giants went 21-5 in the 26 games he kept them close (as I defined above) and pitched at least 5 innings, and 4-3 in the 7 games that he didn't.

Rueter, without any overpowering fastball or any other special "out" pitch, has defied all the statistical powers that have tried to analyze him and found him wanting. Too few strikeouts. Too many hits, walks, and homeruns. And yet he is one of the Top 10 in active winning percentage, in winning percentage for left-handers since 1980, and in active road winning percentages. He is 119-73 for his career despite his lack of any of the usual "cool to have" pitches. He is a crafty lefty in the best tradition of them.

A Baseball Prospectus author had a nice article on ESPN last year analyzing how Rueter is doing it. Basically, Rueter pitches to the situation. With the bases empty, he tries to get the batter to hit the pitch and challenges him. That comes back to haunt him as they hit him and for homers too, though he does minimize pitches by either walking or striking out many.

However, with runners on, and especially with RISP, he pitches more carefully, resulting in much less hits and homers, but more walks as he tries to avoid giving up the big hit that scores runs, apparently by nibbling the corners constantly. According to Yahoo's stats, over his career, his hits per 9 innings (H/9) goes from nearly 11 to about 8 when runners are on, his HR/9 goes from 1.2 to 0.9 (0.84 with RISP), his BB/9 goes from 2.3 to 3.0 (4.2 with RISP, but only 1.8 with only a man on first), and WHIP goes from 1.46 to 1.25 (1.07 with only a man on first). Rueter clamps down when he needs to.

Rueter should be able to do as well, if not better, in 2004 as Rueter/Ponson did last year, a combined 13-11 record, 4.27 ERA, and 1.39 WHIP. And, as long as he is healthy, there is the strong possibility that he can outdo that. But since he had his first trip to the DL with the Giants last year, there is the possibility that this is the beginning of a recurring type of injury since pitching puts so much strain on the body. The positive news on that is that he has already come back and pitched well at the end of last season, plus he has done well this spring training so far.

Jerome Williams - He has done well in the minors his whole career as I noted in my article on Jerome and the fact that, as well as he did in 2003, it was only in line with what he has done his whole minor league career and is not out of the blue. He was the top prospect in the Giants system in 2001 and 2002 and would have been it again in 2003 had Foppert not vaulted so highly.

His statistics proves the point that he's the real deal. In the hit-happy PCL, he had a 3.59 ERA in 2002 with 140 hits in 160.2 IP, WHIP 1.18 and a 2.68 ERA in 2003 with 53 hits in 57.0 IP, 1.19 WHIP when he in the PCL again. Then for the Giants in 2003, he had a 3.30 ERA with 116 hits in 131.0 IP, 1.26 WHIP. And if you think perhaps it is only two years of success, here's his WHIP over his career: 1999, 1.08; 2000, 1.09; 2001, 1.15; 2002, 1.18; 2003, 1.19 and 1.26. There is no reason to expect him to falter: he has a quiet confidence, is mature beyond his years, did better when he repeated AAA, and is not doing anything he has not done before.

He and Ainsworth pitched well as a tandem last year and, as I showed above, Jerome isn't doing anything surprising or out of line with his prior stats, so I would expect him to do at least as well as last year, as bad as he had pitched this spring training. For reference, Williams and Ainsworth combined had an ERA of 3.47 and a record of 12-9 in 32 starts versus what Williams did alone, ERA 3.30 and 7-5 record in 21 starts. Plus Jerome suffered from lack of support from the offense and bullpen last year else he would have won more.

Brett Tomko - See picture under term "journeyman". The Giants are his fifth team as he enters his eighth season, fourth in four seasons. This traveling man looks to be our new Livan, but in a good way. He doesn't have Livan's stuff apparently, but he also doesn't have Livan's mental baggage. Just like you could count on Livan to have an ERA in the 4's and pitching over 200 innings, you can expect the same from Tomko, though his career ERA is a bit higher and he throws about 20-30 less innings than Livan. But their WHIP's are about equal and Tomko has the better one.

And it's not like Tomko hasn't pitched well during his career: his career WHIP is only 1.36, which belies the career 4.62 ERA he carries. Part of that is undoubtedly due to his career HR/9 rate of 1.33, which is very high. But that should be diminished greatly once he starts pitching half his games at SBC Park, which is death to homerun hitting except for Bonds, decreasing homers by 20-30% versus the average NL park. And he has a career record of 62-51, which is a .549 winning percentage (equivalent to a team winning 89 games in a season).

Given the positives of pitching at SBC Park (especially its home run dampening effect), playing for a winning team, and pitching for a strong offensive team, Tomko looks to have a very good year in 2004, as our fourth starter, perhaps breaking his career high of 13 wins, and definitely winning over 10 games. And doing pretty close to what Moss/Brower/Hermanson did, who collectively had a record of 14-10 and 4.27 ERA.

Before you scoff, remember, Jensen went 13-8 with a 4.51 ERA in 2002, Rueter went 14-12 with a 4.42 ERA in 2001, Livan went 13-15 but with a 5.24 in 2001(though he was 12-16 with only a 4.38 ERA in 2002). Plus, Jensen/Foppert/Correia/Powell/Zerbe had a combined 5.43 ERA and still had a 11-11 record in 2003.

Dustin Hermanson - See picture under term "journeyman", under Tomko's picture. The Giants are his fifth team, fourth in four seasons, like Tomko. Hermanson has won the fifth position in the rotation, despite ending spring training on a sour note after starting out so well.

Like Tomko, Hermanson has pitched well during his career: he only has a 65-65 record but has a 4.28 ERA with 1.38 WHIP. Unfortunately for Dustin, he has spent most of his career with the Expos during their bad years in the late 1990's, so despite his relatively good stats, he is only a .500 pitcher for his career. But his stats are comparable with Tomko and Livan.

For 2004, that should change and he should go over .500 winning percentage. As noted above for Tomko, the Giants offense tends to make winners out of pitchers with even mid-to-high 4 ERA's. And Hermanson's pitching problems appeared to start with giving up much more homers than usual and, as also noted for Tomko, the Giants home park severely depresses the home run rate.

Rotation Comparison - By Win Shares The makeshift rotation for last year - featuring 13 different starters - appears to be about the same as for 2004, in terms of win shares. Taking the win shares for Schmidt, Rueter, Moss, Ainsworth, Jensen, Foppert, Williams, Brower, Powell, Correia, Hermanson, Zerbe, and Ponson, I came up with 56 win shares total for the group in 2003. This compared with the 49 that Schmidt, Rueter, Ortiz, Hernandez, Jensen, and Ainsworth collected in 2002, so there actually was an improvement, though obviously all of that was driven by Schmidt's breakout year.

For this year's rotation of Schmidt, Rueter, Williams, Tomko, and Hermanson, the group looks capable of accumulating at least 53 win shares - more if Schmidt puts in another stellar year like last year - I am assuming he doesn't match last year's win share of 22 and "only" get 17, which was good for 10th last year and which is still a stretch for him as his previous win share high was 13. But as I noted above, I expect him to outdo in 2004 what he did in 2003, which would put him - and the starting rotation - much higher.

Starting Rotation Overall

Some Giants fans have bemoaned the loss of starting rotation potential in the farm system that we had last year as backup. And we have lost a lot as we started out last spring training with Jesse Foppert, Kurt Ainsworth, and Jerome Williams chomping on the bit to join the MLB staff. But what matters most is the talent that the Giants currently have in the starting rotation, and, as I reviewed above, it appears that the Giants do look like they will do about the same with their starters this year versus last, barring injuries and unexpected performances.

And should any of the starters be unable to perform as expected, we have a good crop of pitchers who should be able to perform in a pinch. Starting with Kevin Correia, then Jim Brower, and now Wayne Franklin, the Giants look like they are set for the season. All of the Giants did well in spot starts last year and the new addition was passable and all should be able to hold the fort until the starter returns or Sabean engineers another trade for a starter. Plus Valdez and Cain could move up swiftly this season, like Correia did last season, and be ready by mid-to-late season. And there is also Noah Lowry, who pitched well briefly for the Giants and Fresno late last season, who should start out in AAA this season and build on his gains from last season.

100 Wins Again?

Based on what I wrote above about each pitcher, plus my recent article on the starting lineup, one might think that the Giants will outdo last year's team record of 100 wins. And if each performs up to their potential, they could. However, there are numerous factors that act against that.

First, and most significant of all, the team's stats only, according to Bill Jame's Pythagorean Winning Percentage formula, the Giants only played well enough to win 93 games. So the Giants would have to perform - in terms of runs scored and runs allowed - 7 games better in order to just match last year's win total. In addition, other teams have not been standing still and, presumably, improved themselves over the off-season, making them tougher competitors and harder to beat. Also, Schmidt and Rueter are coming off years in which they were injured, which could possibly recur, though it appears that both of them have physically recovered and looked to be rounding themselves into shape during spring training.

But even with all that, the rotation looks stronger than the one we started out with last year, as the Giants had questions marks with Moss, Ainsworth, and Jensen starting, and stronger than the makeshift one that we essentially had throughout last season. And there is the potential for a monster season even better than last season if every starter pitches to their best season in the past.

Post-Season Potential

As strong as I see other teams' rotations in the NL this season - Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, in particular - the Giants could have a pretty awesome starting three-some in Schmidt, Rueter, and Williams. All have had low 3 ERA before in their career, with Schmidt breaking into the low 2 ERA last year - and looking to break into the 1 ERA this year - and Williams looking to be a future regular in having a 2-something ERA. And the Giants may go with just them with a 3-man playoff starting rotation to make a very strong starting unit.

However, as I noted in the Lineup article, the lineup right now does not look like it will be able to withstand the better competition that playoff teams face. And even with a potentially strong rotation, especially with Schmidt possibly become a "sure" win, Rueter has had up and down performances, though mostly up, and Williams did not do that well in his first try at playoff pitching, succumbing to the pressures of the situation. As mature as Williams has been, he will be a question mark going into the playoffs, should the Giants make it, which, again, I think they will, but more on that in another article.

Martin Lee writes 'A Biased Giant's Fanatic's View' for SFDugout.com when the mood and muse strikes him. He wants to teach and share his love of baseball and, in particular, his love for the San Francisco Giants. He will believe to his dying days that Bobby Bonds was robbed of being the first 40-40 player and should be in Cooperstown. Please feel free to e-mail him at BiasedGiantsFanatic@nospam.yahoo.com (remove the "nospam." if you wish to e-mail me) if you have a question or comment.

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